Held By The Ears
"flaming as I have seen him in a good humour
he hath held the company by the ears...
for more than an hour together,
that there was scarce a whisper in the room"
Roger North on Nicola Matteis
About ten years ago, when we were just starting out, we were offered a concert by Andrew Pinnock in his sorely missed Festival of Early English Opera at St. John's, Smith Square in London. It wasn't exactly a real concert; it was after the main event and would take place in the wine bar downstairs, but for us (whose recent engagements had included busking and playing background music for meetings of the Weight Watchers) this was definitely a step in the right direction and one we were excited about. There was a catch; Andrew, with a seeming boundless knowledge of obscure 17th century English music, wanted us to play some. He politely but firmly requested that some works by Nicola Matteis by included in the programme; he would even loan us the music. "Nobody plays it but I have a feeling it must be really good!" Rather gingerly we took the books and set to work playing. Initial reactions of mild apathy gave way to mild resentment. "Do we really have to play this?" I still remember the feelings of surprise and pleasure at our second rehearsal when we struck our first nugget of gold - how was it possible that it should be so good and so different? "It sounds like rock and roll - well this part is quite folky - I can't figure out what's going on here, let's play it again." Ten years later, Matteis is still surprising us and we can only thank Andrew for the chance he gave us to discover some of the most exhilarating music of the 17th century.
But it has to be said that Matteis is not a composer who invites the ‘complete works' treatment; pages of sheer magic exist side by side with tedious doggerel for the exercise of amateurs that seem to be have been composed with one eye on the TV screen. I wonder if Matteis himself might have agreed. To quote Roger North: "He contrived to make many of his musick...by having his lessons made for his scollars - short aires - and the like, to be finely ingraved and printed off... And out of these books he used, by taking here and there, to make out admirable sonatas."*
North gives us potted biography of Matteis which ahs the flavour of a tabloid article on a showbiz celebrity: "I remember no Italians till Nicola came... He was very poor but inexpugnably proud, and hardly prevailed with to play to anybody. At length... good council and starving brought the man over, and he became the most debonaire and easy person living, he came to little meetings and did just what they would have him. He soon... began to feel himself grow rich, and then of course luxurious. He took a great house, and lived as one that was married... contracted bad diseases... excess of pleasure threw him into a dropsie, and he became very poor... And dyed miserable."
North tell us other things about Matteis worth noting: that he (perhaps unusually for a composer virtuoso of his time) enjoyed playing music by others - "Old Nicola Matteis was wonderfully pleased with a set of Jenkins' Ayres... and played the upper part more than once" - and also that his own public performances were considerably different from his printed music: "And being in a good humour, which a full audience commonly produced... he performed in surprising perfection, not as his book expres't... but with flights of humour not to be expres't... And when the raptures came... one would have thought the man beside himself... so violent was his conference of extreams, whereof the like I never head before or since... He had some musicall contests, as with Farrinell (a French virtuoso) whom he made stand still, and stare at him".
So how can modern performers come to terms with the "Not to be expres't" element in this music? Rather than dare "Flights of humour" in the recording studio we decided to join Matteis with music that seems in some indefinable way to be related; the Scottish folktunes of his time. In thinking about this feeling of connection I'm reminded of Benjamin Britten's list of the things he admired in Purcell's music. Brilliance, Clarity, Tenderness and Strangeness. If Matteis can be accused of occasionally lacking clarity he more than repays the debt with the other three qualities and nothing could be more clear than the east perfection of the old folktunes. In arranging these we started with the earliest versions we could find and then added or subtracted parts as our wars and instincts required. We found a great difference between the simple settings of the late 17th century and the more elaborate and "correct" version of thirty years later. Her one must single out Matteis' countryman Barsanti who lived in Edinburgh and collected many beautiful Scots tunes. He arranged them with such concern to make them grammatical and suppress the nodal character that in the end we rejected his polite versions completely and made our own. A bigger problem, though, was one selection; with such a wealth of beautiful melodies to choose from it was difficult to know where to stop.
Matteis wasn't just a violinist but also played that folkiest of instruments, the guitar. "I have seen the boy in coats play to his father's guittare... of which instrument he was a consummate master, and had the force upon it to stand in consort against a harpsichord". Matteis' False Consonances of Musick is an excellent instruction manual on how to play figured bass on that instrument. The little set of guitar solos are from the beginning of that work, included perhaps to sweeten the bitter dose of harmony exercises that follow.
Our normal way of performing Matteis has been to use his "here and there" approach, taking pieces from all of this published books as we please, but two suites on this recording, those in D minor and D major, are played as they stand. Each seems to have a feeling of unity unusual for Matteis and both works have a sobriety that creates an interesting contrast to such exuberant "flights of humour" as the Aria de Trombetta and the Bizzaria. The D major sonata gives us a rare chance to hear Matteis the contrapuntist in a short fugue and calls to mind North's description of the Italian Sonata "... A fuge... hath the cast of a debate... the subject is wrought over & under till, like waves upon the water, it is spent and vanisheth leaving the musick to proceed smoothly, and as if it were satisfyed and contented. After this comes properly in the Adagio, which is a laying of all affaires aside, and lolling in a sweet repose; which state the musick represent by a most tranquill but full harmony, and dying gradually as one that falls asleep. After this is over action is resumed...with a Gigue which like men (half foxed) dancing for joy, and so good night."
We close our programme with a haunting melody called (sometime in the 17th century) A New Tune. It's a name which reminds us of one of the miraculous paradoxes of a musician's life: however good or bad the performance, however recent the composition or ancient the manuscript, the only time music really exists is when you hear it - and then it is new.
William Carter 2000
*Roger North, who knew Matteis, wrote voluminous, opinionated and fascinating essays about music (as well as a multitude of other subjects from "Perspective" to "Fish and Fishponds". All of the quotations in the introduction are from his work, a selection of which is collected in Roger North On Music, edited by John Wilson and published by Novello (1959).
Recorded on 19-21 October 1999 and 12 February 2000 at St. Michael's Church, Highgate
Engineered by Philip Hobbs
Post-production by Julia Thomas at Finesplice